Disproportionate number of young women placed on furlough, study finds

Female workers make up more than half of those on the scheme despite representing less than half the workforce

Women have been furloughed at a disproportionately higher rate than men, a study has shown, as experts say employers need to do more to retain female talent.

While women make up 47 per cent of the UK’s workforce, they account for 52 per cent of people furloughed, a report from the Women’s Budget Group found.

Citing data from HMRC, the report found that, by the end of February 2021, 2.3 million women were furloughed compared to 2.1 million men.

This divide is particularly wide among younger generations, the report said. Nearly a quarter (24 per cent) of all women between the ages of 18 and 25 who were eligible for furlough had been furloughed, compared to just 20 per cent of eligible men of the same age.

Similarly, while 40 per cent of eligible female workers under the age of 18 were furloughed, only 30 per cent of men this age were.

The report said the disparity was because of the difference in sectors that men and women tended to work. Sectors employing more women – including retail, hospitality, accommodation and food services – were more heavily impacted over the last year than more male-dominated sectors – such as manufacturing and construction – the report said.

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The report also outlined how the pandemic exacerbated gender equality among the self-employed.

In March 2020, women made up almost 35 per cent of all self-employed workers. However, by the end of January 2021 only 29 per cent of all claims to the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS) claims – worth just over £1.4bn – were made by women.

This compared to almost £4.8bn in SEISS claimed by self-employed men.

Charlotte Woodworth, gender equality director at Business in the Community, said the findings were disappointing but not surprising. “Employers need to offer flexible working hours for everyone and should top up furlough support to 100 per cent if possible, so workers who are forced to cut their hours aren’t hurt financially,” she said.

This was echoed by Aliya Vigor-Robertson, co-founder of JourneyHR, who added that women were also more likely to carry additional burdens of childcare and unpaid housework. “The furlough scheme has helped so many people during the pandemic, but employers need to revisit the effect it has had on gender balance at work,” she said.

“As we look to move out of lockdown and back to work, businesses need to think about how they can create a level playing field for women coming off furlough, supporting them with their development, and ensuring that there are fair opportunities for promotion and development.”

Mandy Garner, managing editor of WM People, added that the higher rates of furlough for women also risked making them more likely to be made redundant when the scheme ended. “It also means many are suffering financial hardship as a large number will be in low-income jobs where furlough pay is not being topped up,” she said, calling for further research into the causes of these inequalities shown in the report.

However, Zara Nanu, co-founder and chief executive of Gapsquare, said the recovery from Covid could be used as an opportunity to implement sustainable change. “This is a moment to think about ensuring diverse talent can thrive, for companies to support their female staff and look into the longer-term impact of furloughing or firing certain demographics,” she said.

“Preventing loss of diversity opens opportunities to innovate the future of work in an inclusive and fair way.”

Suki Sandhu, founder and chief executive of consultancy INvolve, said employers needed to take a targeted approach to ensuring women are being retained in the workplace in order to recover from the pandemic. “Businesses must prioritise the retention and training of women across all levels of an organisation to ensure that recovery is quick, and that we continue to take positive action to support women in the workplace,” he said.